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What We Can Learn from Unformed Substance

Posted on September 13, 2017 at 10:15 AM Comments comments (0)

What We Can Learn from Unformed Substances

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Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Your book were all written

The days that were ordained [for me],

When as yet there was not one of them.

-- Psalm 139:16 (NASB)

How can we be sure that things are going to be okay for us, from one day to the next? One might think that it is simply a matter of inductive reasoning. Lord Bertrand Russell, a twentieth century analytic philosopher, explains why we may want to rethink. I am Americanizing his actual example. A turkey pokes its neck out of the turkey cage at sunrise and is given a handful of delicious birdfeed. The next morning at sunrise, he pokes his neck out of the turkey cage and is given a handful of delicious birdfeed. This continues day after day, week after week. One month after the other he pokes his neck out of the turkey cage at sunrise and is given a handful of delicious birdfeed, until one day he pokes his neck out of the turkey cage at sunrise and Whack! He is decapitated – as it is, all unbeknownst to him, Thanksgiving morning. The moral of the story is that inductive, or scientific reasoning can be bad for your health.

So, I put it to you again: How can we be sure that things are going to be okay for us, from one day to the next? Today’s psalm from David, Psalm 139, gives an answer to our question which, though it still cost Someone dearly, explains why it is that things are going to be okay for us, from one day to the next.

What We Can Learn from Unformed Substances

Inductive reasoning has, for a very long time, been employed in scientific and philosophic efforts to make everything okay, day after day, but without relying on God. This effort is summarized under another term, “substance.” I’d love to talk with you about Aristotelian substance and its implications, for example, for understanding the second article of the Nicene Creed. There we confess Jesus to be “of one substance with the Father,” but we need to fast forward to the modern period. On the cusp of the Modern Scientific Revolution Rene Descartes defined substance as “that which exists by itself.” I’d also like to talk about Descartes’ brilliant stubbornness in his philosophical refusal to reduce human beings to material substance and his insistence that humans are essentially immaterial thinking substances, but we don’t have time for that either, so you’ll just have to promise me to join us for a philosophy class or two sometime so we can work on this together, alright?

Here is the thing I want to say clearly and deliberately. “Substance” is a dead end as a stand-alone answer to the question, “How we can be sure that everything is going to be okay from one day to the next?” This is clear, I will say, from the work of Spinoza, a successor of Descartes who pointed out that substance, in order to be something that exists by itself, must be eternal, without beginning or end. As he puts it, we must consider substance sub specie aeternitas, under the perspective of eternity. From that point on Spinoza goes up in a balloon and gets quite bizarre (he got himself excommunicated both from the synagogue and from the Christian church), so let’s just take that last point about looking at things from the long-term perspective and thus settle in to our text and ask our question, “How can we be sure that things are going to be okay for us, from one day to the next?” Remember, the hypothesis has been that a substance is “that which endures day after day on its own.” But there is no such thing within all creation – including you and me. This is what we can learn from our psalm verse.

The New American Standard Bible translation of this passage is eminently sane and downright arresting, though I will grant you that its language is rather highbrow. It quotes King David and the Holy Ghost as teaching us to pray to God, “Your eyes have seen my unformed substance; / And in Your book were all written / The days that were ordained [for me], / When as yet there was not one of them.” Substance is one of humankind’s truly great ideas, but it is only an afterimage of the real state of affairs. We are okay day after day – indeed there is a you and there is a me from one day to the next – because of God’s gracious will. Substance doesn’t account for substantial reality; the Creator does. Things do not remain substantially what they are by dint of their innate power (whatever the term “power” may mean here), but by God’s providence. Substance is that which exists, but it doesn’t have to. All could just as well be in constant flux, as Heraclitus preached – but for the all-powerful will of the One who is Himself the same yesterday, today and forever.

A few weeks ago Dr. Mark Braun was preaching to us about God’s will being done and explained that he did not think it was helpful to speak as if God willed each and every mundane little thing in our lives, but rather to say simply that God oversees everything according to His gracious will. That perspective is especially helpful as we consider what exactly it means that all the days ordained for us were written in God’s book before one of them came to be. This is not a passage that teaches hard or soft determinism, asking whether things must happen in a fixed cause and event manner, as you often hear it explained. After all, that sort of thing would work, if it ever works, only in regard to the material side of our human being. And besides, that sort of thing in effect begs the Really Big Question: What makes natural laws natural laws? But let us move right now from theory to personal appropriation of God’s words here in our verse.

Our passage is about God’s personal involvement with each of us as individual, immortal and redeemed persons. The relationship began before our substantial selves were conceived, so this is clearly all at God’s initiative. As an illustration of how this works, I would like to talk about the current situation on the 3rd floor administration building above the Registrar’s office. From scientific reasoning, to substance, to my faculty floor – it is a logical progression, don’t you think?

It is quite a pressure cooker up there, let me tell you. I am referring, of course, to the grandchild picture situation. Mrs. Koser, our ace faculty secretary, has all these great pictures of her lovely grandchildren posted all over her office, where I go several times each day. Prof. Hein has pictures of her spectacular grandkids up on her office door, where I can see them from where I sit at my desk. And, at the far end of the hall from me, Dr. Moldenhauer has posted a couple fine pictures of his adorable grandchild, new this semester, after proudly showing them off.

So, when my wife and I received the first ultrasound pictures of our grandson a couple weeks ago from our daughter and son-in-law in Florida, with confirmation that he is due to be born in late February, who would have blamed me if I would have posted them on my office door, just to keep up with my coworkers. But I haven’t done that. All I can think about is how very, very vulnerable our unborn grandchildren and children are. You see, I have a daughter in Heaven who was critically ill already at birth. I have written a little bit of how I feel about this. And, to tell the difficult truth, our children and grandchildren are no less vulnerable after birth. Morning after morning we get up and assume that things are going to be okay for us and our loved ones, but then one day ... Normally, we think that we and the children and all our lovely grandchildren are substantially okay, but what about the long-term perspective? What about even tomorrow? This is beyond us. It is too wonderful for us. It is too terrifying for us. But the truth of it is that all our days are completely and transparently open to God, even before they have come to be.

How can we know that things are going to be alright, at the end of our days? Because God is who He is. Think of Exodus 3:14 and the burning bush, where God revealed Himself some 500 years before our psalm. He is the One Who Is, the LORD. The second Person of this three-in-one LORD became flesh and lived for a while among us. It is His actions, especially His actions on Good Friday, just prior to His body-and-soul Resurrection on Easter Sunday, that tell us how we can be sure of anything and how we can be sure that God wills good for us day after day into eternity. God’s death for all on Calvary demonstrated once and for all, that He is pro nobis or “for us” and that His will by which He holds everything together, nanosecond by nanosecond and eon after eon, is therefore pro-us or “providence.”

Let us teach inductive reasoning where it is appropriate. Fine. We can talk about substance in our philosophy and theology courses. Good. But when it comes to knowing that everything will ultimately be well with us and our children and our children’s children, there is something to be learned from unformed substances, some “one thing needful.”

Your eyes have seen my unformed substance;

And in Your book were all written

The days that were ordained [for me],

When as yet there was not one of them.

So it is. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Gregory Schulz

Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel

7 October 2005